Coming of Age at Guantanamo Bay

As part of an ongoing series of comments from Human Rights Watch staffers on the dark goings-on at Guantánamo Bay, Jo Becker, advocacy director for the Children’s Rights Division at HRW, has filed an impassioned piece for Salon called “The War on Teen Terror.”

“According to government records obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, more than 20 detainees under the age of 18 have been brought to the prison camp since 2002,” Becker writes. “Although most of the 20 juvenile detainees have now been released, three remain, having spent more than a quarter of their lives at Guantánamo.” Here’s more, excerpted from Becker’s article:

The Bush administration’s refusal to treat these prisoners as juveniles has had profound consequences for [the three remaining juvenile detainees, Omar] Khadr, [Mohammed] Jawad and [Mohammad] El Gharani. They have had no access to education or recreation facilities and have been housed in the same facilities as adult detainees. After five years of imprisonment, Jawad remains functionally illiterate. None of the three have been allowed to see members of their family.

The effects of prolonged isolation have taken a severe toll. El Gharani has tried to commit suicide at least seven times. He has slit his wrist, run repeatedly into the sides of his cell and tried to hang himself. On several occasions he has been placed on suicide watch in a mental health unit.

Jawad also tried to commit suicide about 11 months after arriving in Guantánamo, by hanging himself by his shirt collar. Prison records also state that he “attempted self-harm by banging his head off of metal structures inside his cell.”

And so it goes, sadly and to our enormous shame. The United States is a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes 18 as the age at which soldiers may be conscripted or volunteer to participate in armed conflict. Anyone on the battlefield younger than 18 is thus classified as a child soldier and entitled to “special protections” adult soldiers are not granted (rehabilitation, namely, but more generally consideration as a victim of the conflict rather than as a participant). And yet in the legal vacuum of Guantanamo, this treaty and all that it stands for has effectively been shredded–along with the fundamental principles on which our legal system is based.

“International law does not preclude the possibility of prosecuting former child soldiers for serious criminal offenses,” Becker writes. “But the standards are very clear: Such cases should be handled as quickly as possible through specialized juvenile justice systems. Rehabilitation must be the primary objective, and conditions of detention must include access to family, education, recreation and other special assistance. On every count, the U.S. has failed at Guantánamo to meet these requirements.”

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